Elenchus (argumentation)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Eric C.W. Krabbe, "Meeting in the House of Callas: Rhetoric and Dialectic" (Argumentation 14, number 3, 2000).


In a dialogueelenchus is the "Socratic method" of questioning someone to test the cogency, consistency, and credibility of what he or she has said. Plural: elenchi. Adjective: elentic. Also known as the Socratic elenchus, Socratic method, or elenctic method.

"The aim of the elenchus," says Richard Robinson, "is to wake men out of their dogmatic slumbers into genuine intellectual curiosity" (Plato's Earlier Dialectic, 1966).

For an example of Socrates' use of elenchus, see the excerpt from Gorgias (a dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC) at the entry for Socratic Dialogue.

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

From the Greek, to refute, examine critically

Examples and Observations

  • "Socrates' famous method of refutation--the elenchus--tended to induce the experience of emptiness in others: an interlocutor would begin thinking he knew what justice or courage or piety is, and in the course of the conversation would be reduced to confusion and self-contradiction. For his own part, Socrates was the ancient Hellenic version of the Cheshire cat, fading away into his own smile. . . . In short, Socrates had an uncanny gift for bringing others to the brink of anxiety."
    (Jonathan Lear, "The Examined Life." The New York Times, October 25, 1998)
  • A Model of the Elenchus
    "The elenchus is often used in describing the Socratic dialectical method. This model in its simplest form can be sketched as follows: Socrates lets one of his interlocutors pose a definition of x, after which Socrates will interrogate the interlocutor up to the point where the latter has to admit this definition was, indeed, wrong and that he does not know what x is. This model of the elenchus can indeed be found in some dialogues--I think especially in the 'early' dialogues."
    (Gerard Kuperus, "Traveling With Socrates: Dialectic in the Phaedo and Protagoras." Philosophy in Dialogue: Plato's Many Devices, ed. by Gary Alan Scott. Northwestern University Press, 2007)
  • Multiple Meanings
    "Various terms are used in [Plato's] dialogues in connection with Socrates' manner of inquiring and interrogating, but none of them is used consistently by Plato in any precise or technical way that would legitimize it as Plato's label for the philosopher's approach. . . .

    "Still, in the last 30 or 40 years, it has become rather standard for commentators to use the term 'Socratic elenchus' as a label for Socrates' way of philosophizing in the dialogues. . . .

    "It is fundamentally unclear whether 'the elenchus' is supposed to refer to a process (in which case it could mean to 'cross-examine,' 'to put to the test,' 'to put to the proof,' or 'to indicate') or a result (in which case it could mean 'to shame,' 'to refute,' or 'to prove'). In short, there is no general agreement about 'the elenchus,' and therefore no consensus either about its employment in the dialogues."
    (Gary Alan Scott, Introduction to Does Socrates Have a Method?: Rethinking the Elenchus in Plato's Dialogues. Penn State, 2004)
  • A Negative Method
    "Socrates is considered one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy but, problematically for scholars, his thought is preserved only through the accounts of his students, most notably in Plato's dialogues.

    "His most significant contribution to Western thought is the Socratic method of debate or Method of Elenchus, a dialectical method of questioning, testing and ultimately improving a hypothesis. Through asking a series of questions, the method sought to show contradictions in the beliefs of those who posed them ​and systematically move towards a hypothesis-free from contradiction. As such, it is a negative method, in that it seeks to identify and demarcate that which a person does not know, rather than which he does. Socrates applied this to the testing of moral concepts, such as justice. Plato produced 13 volumes ofSocratic Dialogues, in which Socrates would question a prominent Athenian on moral and philosophical issues. So often cast as the questioner, it is hard to establish any of Socrates' own philosophical beliefs. He said his wisdom was an awareness of his own ignorance, and his statement, 'I know that I know nothing' is often quoted."
    (Arifa Akbar, "Arrogance of Socrates Made a Compelling Case for His Death." The Independent [UK], June 8, 2009)

    Alternate Spellings: elenchos